Place  /  Retrieval

The Deadly Temptation of the Oregon Trail Shortcut

Dying of dysentery was just the beginning.

In the summer of 1846, a party of 89 emigrants was making its way westward along the 2,170-mile-long Oregon Trail. Tired, hungry, and trailing behind schedule, they decided at Fort Bridger, Wyoming to travel to their final destination of California by shortcut. The “Hastings Cutoff” they chose was an alternative route that its namesake, Lansford Hastings, claimed would shave at least 300 miles off the journey. The party believed this detour could save more than a month’s time. They were wrong.

Hastings Cutoff turned out to be a waterless, wide-open stretch of the Great Salt Lake Desert, bordered by sagebrush wilderness, that began with having to forge their own wagon route through Emigration Canyon in the Wasatch mountains. By the time the party finally reached the Sierra Nevada mountains, the shortcut had cost them weeks. Snow fell, trapping the Donner-Reed party. This is when the most infamous (and deadly) part of their tale began. When members of the party began starving to death, survivors ate their remains to stay alive.

Shortcuts, or quicker, supposedly easier ways of doing something, have often produced disastrous results. But perhaps nowhere are the calamities more prevalent than across the American West during the 19th century. That’s when hundreds-of-thousands of settlers migrated from the Eastern United States to what’s now California and Oregon, hoping to procure their own tract of land and perhaps make a better living in the American frontier, where the possibilities seemed endless.

“It’s obvious that [emigrants traveling west] were in need of shorter routes to save time and money,” says Rob Sweeten, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Administrator for the Old Spanish National Historic Trail. “Especially when you figure, they’re traveling 15 miles a day and facing challenges like changing weather and river conditions, greedy landowners, and conflicts with Native Americans.”(By and large, Native Americans tolerated the many travelers barreling through their land, but occasionally they defended it more actively. Between 1840 and 1860, Native Americans killed 362 emigrants along the trail, while emigrants killed 426 Native Americans.)

The more popular a trail became, Sweeten says, the more notorious it grew among travelers. Emigrants shared tales about highway robbers, entrepreneurial souls who’d begun extorting exuberant fees at river crossings, forcing them to either come to an agreement or go miles out of their way. “Such difficulties often led to them attempting to find an easier route, shorter route,” says Sweeten. “Though, in many cases, the new route turned out to be much harder.”